Much has been made of the Packers' improved pass rush, but their defensive improvement has even more to do with the play of Jerron McMillian, who has stepped up to replace Nick Collins in a way that Charlie Peprah and M.D. Jennings couldn't.
Last season, the Green Bay Packers' pass rush was awful, their secondary was awful, and so it came as no surprise that the defense as a whole was awful. This season, no team has more sacks than the Packers. In fact, they are on pace to tie last season's sack total by the halfway point of this season. However, despite the improved pass rush, the Packers defense has allowed an opposition passer rating only one point lower than it was last year.
Of course, that's not a perfect way to compare this year's defense to last year's. Sacks themselves don't directly affect passer rating, and passer rating is an obviously flawed metric (see: Aaron Rodgers being 25 points below perfect on Sunday). The biggest reason for the closeness in the allowed passer rating for the last two seasons, besides the stat being flawed, is the amount of dropped interceptions the Packers have had this season.
Last year, Green Bay picked off 1.93 balls a game, far and away tops in the league. This year they have dropped down to 1.33 picks per game. If that pace holds, they'll be good for 10 less interceptions over the course of the season, and down from 1st in the league to a tie for 5th in the league with this week's opponent, the Rams. With the improved pass rush, the defense at times this season has been great. Unfortunately it has also been occasionally awful. Catching some of those potential interceptions would definitely help out, but even so, the defense as a whole appears to be very much improved over last season.
Looking at this season compared to last, teams are throwing on the Packers three less times a game, averaging almost a full yard per completion less, and have a 3.8 percent lower completion percentage allowed, which is good enough to move them up from middle of the pack to number seven in the league in completion percentage. Has the pass rush been the reason for the meteoric improvement from one of the worst defenses in the league to an average/above average defense? Maybe. Let's take a look.
Despite leading the NFL in sacks, Pro Football Focus has the Packers ranked in the bottom third for pass rush, an improvement over the 29th rank they had the Packers at last year. The reason for this still low ranking is that when the Packers are getting to the QB, they're sacking him at a high rate. Despite this high sack rate, they are getting to the QB at a poor rate. The Packers have 22 sacks on 221 pass attempts this season. Compare that to the best rated pass rush, the Seattle Seahawks, who have 19 sacks on 233 pass attempts.The difference? The Seahawks have 18 more QB hurries, good for three per game more than the Packers.
This year, Pro Football Focus has the Packers as the top ranked pass coverage team in the NFL, a huge jump up from 19th last season. The most notable absence on the defense last season compared to the Super Bowl run of two years ago was Nick Collins. Coming into last season, the Packers heavily depended on Collins to be the reliable back end and one of the leaders on the defense. After all, he had been to the Pro Bowl the previous three seasons as well as 2nd team all-defense each of those seasons. He led the NFL in interceptions in 2008, and came up with a huge pick-six in the Super Bowl.
Charlie Peprah appeared to play alright in Collins' absence last season, but alright doesn't cut it when you are replacing a player of Collins' caliber. The question is, how did Peprah fair in replacing Collins last year and how well have the safeties played in place of Peprah this year? Check the table below for some important stats.
Collins Peprah McMillian
Pass Plays 637.3 653.0 180.0
Receptions Allowed 17.7 36.0 5.0
Times Thrown At 39.7 54.0 8.0
Completion % 44.8 66.7 62.5
Pass Plays/Thrown At 16.1 12.09 22.5
Yards 306.7 521.0 73.0
Yards per catch 17.8 14.47 14.6
TD 3.0 5.0 0.0
Pass Plays/TD 212.4 130.6 -----
INT 6.0 5.0 1.0
Thrown At/INT 6.6 10.8 8.0
Passes defended 6.7 4.0 2.0
QB Rating 57.0 90.1 64.4
In that table, Nick Collins' stats are his averages from his three final full seasons. I did not include M.D. Jennings on this list because his only notable game this year was the San Francisco game and he was terrible. Coincidentally or not, that was probably the worst the Packer defense has looked this year. When looking at the stats, it becomes apparent that Collins, while a great player, was susceptible to the big play and not allowing the big play was about the only thing Peprah was good at last year. Peprah was picked on often last season, being thrown at 54 times, and it's clear why. He only had four passes defensed while allowing quarterbacks to complete 67 percent of their passes. The 90.1 passer rating allowed by the Packers when Peprah plays is in the area of Ben Roethlisberger/Eli Manning/Alex Smith/Matt Ryan. In comparison, the passer ratings allowed by the defense when Collins and McMillian play would register as the two worst passer ratings among qualified quarterbacks last season. It is fair to say that Peprah was fairly bad last season, however not allowing the big play is about as good as you can hope for in a back up.
In Collins' last three seasons, according to Pro Football Focus, he graded out with 25 good games to nine bad games, in which three of those nine bad games came in the playoffs during the 2010 Super Bowl run. His regular season grades were 24 good to only five bad in 48 regular season games. In Peprah's 16 games last season, he graded out with five bad games compared to one good one. The limited amount of time McMillian has played this season, he has graded out with three good games to one bad game out of his five total games. Three good games in five total games to one good game in 16 total games is a pretty big difference.
The surprising thing when looking at McMillian's stats is how little teams are throwing at him, despite his inexperience. Being thrown at every 22 pass plays is a number far less than what Collins and Peprah had totaled the last four seasons. This says a lot about the coverage he is playing. In the 180 pass plays he has been on the field for this year, teams have only thrown at him 4.4 percent of the time. Out of the eight passes teams have thrown at him, he has recorded one interception and two passes defensed, the same amount of passes defensed that Peprah had all of last season. The five game sample size for McMillian is not huge, but he has played 76 percent of all snaps during that five game stretch. The improved play of McMillian appears to have benefited the Packers' defense quite a bit.
In two of the Packers' three losses, McMillian or Jennings has graded out poorly and in the other loss (Seattle) the defense played quite well. In two of the three wins, McMillian has graded out very well, with the lone exception being the New Orleans game in which he was fairly average. That's a statistic that is more than just a coincidence. Solid safety play is very important to this team.
It is entirely possible that the improved pass rush has helped all of the defensive backs, and that is more than likely true. However the upgrade in play at the safety position appears to be the biggest turnaround for this Packer D. The pass rush is without a doubt better than it was last season, but the improved safety play appears to be an even bigger part of reason for the defensive turnaround. As the Minnesota Vikings showed last year, an elite pass rush means nothing if your secondary is not up to doing their job.
Collins was a ballhawk. The rate at which he intercepted passes, defended passes and the tiny completion percentage he allowed were nothing short of elite. When he went down last season it was obvious that he could not be replaced. While Peprah did a good enough job, an upgrade needed to be made. That upgrade has been made with McMillian, and he is showing a lot of the same ballhawking and elite cover skills that Collins did in his time here.
If McMillian keeps playing the way he has to start the season, we should continue to see even better results as the season goes on and the schedule softens. It's too early to say that McMillian is playing at the same level that Collins did before he got injured, but his potential is limitless, and he's showing signs of becoming an elite safety in the years to come.
EDIT: When I made my spreadsheet for this I accidently had inserted some of Peprah's stats from 2010, not 2011. I thought I fixed it, but I apparently missed it. So if you see anything referencing Peprah only allowing 1 TD, having 2 INTs, or 2 PDs, that's why. The numbers should be fixed now.